ATLANTIC CITY - Lacey Township High School senior Lex Knapp wanted to take one more step at Sunday's state individual wrestling tournament.
The 220-pounder had dreamed all season of finishing his high school wrestling career by climbing to the top of the podium and waving to the fans as an official hung a first-place medal around his muscular neck.
He fell just short.
When the top eight finishers in his weight class accepted their awards, Knapp (42-1) was forced to stand on the second-place section while Phillipsburg senior Brandon Hull (38-3) posed on the top.
Knapp's quest to become Lacey's first state champion in 15 years ended with a 7-2 loss to Hull in front of a roaring crowd of 10,546 at Boardwalk Hall.
"I wanted to be at the top of the podium," Knapp said. "That's it. That was my only goal. Getting 42 wins this year was great, but 43 was what I wanted."
Knapp was bidding to join Russ Witt, who won the 119-pound title in 1997, as Lacey's only state champions.
Instead, Hull became Phillipsburg's first state champ since 1996.
When the match ended, a group of Stateliners fans unfurled a giant congratulatory banner in a corner of the stands while Hull waved to them. Knapp jogged off the mat, plopped on the concrete floor next to the Boardwalk Hall stage and buried his face in his hands.
"I felt like I had the whole town of Phillipsburg on my back because it had been so long since we had a state champ," Hull said. "For me to be the one who ended the drought feels amazing. It's every wrestler's dream to win a state title at Boardwalk Hall and to actually accomplish it, there's nothing better."
Hull accomplished it with an impressive performance.
He took immediate control of the match, using a double-leg takedown to grab a 2-0 lead just 17 seconds into the bout. Knapp cut the gap to 2-1 with an escape later in the period, but Hull answered with his own escape to open the second period and then earned another takedown to up his lead to 5-1.
Knapp escaped again in the third period but never seemed to get into a rhythm. Hull used his strength to fight off Knapp's charges and then added a takedown in the final minute to close the scoring.
"That kid from Phillipsburg (Hull) was just so freaking strong," Lacey coach Tom Pfister said. "He was very explosive and his legs were like tree trunks. Lex just couldn't get anything going against him.
"I couldn't be more proud of Lex, though. He's the epitome of hard work paying off. He put his heart and soul into this and just to reach this point is quite an accomplishment."
Knapp was one of the most improved wrestlers in the tournament. Unlike most other upperclassmen, he was making his first appearance at Boardwalk Hall, despite finishing second to Witt (100) in school history with 98 career victories.
He had been to the tournament once before, having sat in the stands at last year's tournament after finishing fourth in Region 6.
"It was tough sitting there and watching kids I knew I could beat," Knapp said. "That was when I made a promise to myself that I would not be sitting in the stands again this year."
He stormed through the regular season and then won both the District 24 and Region 6 titles. This past weekend, he used his skills and stamina to get three victories, including a 2-1 overtime win over eventual third-place finisher Roy Lucas, of St. Joseph's of Hammonton, in Saturday semifinals.
Knapp will continue his wrestling career in college. Rider University, Rutgers University and the University of Virginia are on his short list.
"I'm proud of myself and what I did this weekend," Knapp said. "I have to admit that it sucks to lose, but this was a great experience. Just the feeling of wrestling in front of all those people. You're out there on the mat and everyone is watching you.
"It's such a cool feeling and I'll never forget it."
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